Taking a train in Japan: A base-by-base breakdown
Unless you are on Okinawa, you’ll likely find the U.S. military base you are assigned to in Japan is somewhat out of the way of the big-city bustle that can make overseas assignments exciting. It is an unfortunate reality, but there are, literally, ways to “get around” it.
All it takes is a little initiative. While in Misawa, Sasebo and Iwakuni, taxis may be your best bet for getting around just outside the gates. You can navigate Japan’s train and subway systems to get where you want to go throughout the Kanto Plain and to many points beyond.
First, plan before you go. Want to check out that hot new club you’ve heard about, a restaurant serving delicious food, or a great place to bring the kids, go online to HyperDia or Jorudan, two English-language information sites providing detailed train times and travel directions.
Just type in your starting point, destination and, if desired, time of departure or arrival. This will give you train times, as well as cost, travel time and, if applicable, alternate routes. To return home, simply reverse the direction you are traveling and input a new departure or arrival time. Both sites also have nearby hotel and map information for each station. HyperDia even has a Chinese-language option, though its maps are entirely in Japanese. Jorudan’s maps are in (limited) English and Japanese, and its travel searches will include any applicable bus routes and times as well as trains.
Second, go high-tech to avoid ticket purchasing hassles each time you go somewhere by train or bus. Instead of repeatedly standing somewhat foolishly in front of the fare maps at train stations figuring out how much to pay, purchase a Suica prepaid electronic card issued by East Japan Railway (JR East).
For 2,500 yen (about $22.80), including a 500 yen refundable deposit, you can buy your first 1,500 yen worth of fare credits for your next trip. Suica cards can be purchased from machines at JR East stations or from the station clerk, and can be recharged in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 4,000, 5,000 and 10,000 yen at a time, up to a maximum of 20,000 yen.
With trains to Tokyo costing around 800-900 yen one way from almost every base on the Kanto Plain, it can be a while before you have to recharge, depending on the amount of credits you choose to purchase.
To use a Suica card, simply place it over the scanner when you pass through the ticket gate at the beginning of your journey. When you reach your destination, pass the card over the scanner one more time and a screen built into the gate automatically tells you how much has been deducted from the card and the amount remaining.
The card can also be used in subways, public buses and the Tokyo monorail, which connects Haneda Airport to Tokyo. Moreover, it can be used as money in many convenience stores, station kiosks and other shops, as well as to make
purchases from many vending machines and to rent coin lockers at stations.
JR East and the Tokyo Metro subway, which issues the Pasmo card, accept each other’s card, making travel in the Tokyo area virtually seamless. Suica can also be used on railways in other parts of Japan, such as JR Hokkaido, JR Central in the greater Nagoya area, JR West in the Greater Osaka, Okayama and Hiroshima areas, JR Kyushu in the Fukuoka area as well as the Fukuoka City Subway. But while such cards can be used inside many metropolitan areas, they are still not accepted for travel on the “shinkansen” (bullet train) and some other long-distance trains.
Equally as important as planning and paying, is how to get around on those trains, especially the ones that serve your local train station.
Fortunately, the trains operated by JR East in the Tokyo area – as well as their routes on train maps – are color-coded:
The Yamanote Line, the workhorse of the system, is green. It runs in a 35-kilometer (22-mile) loop, in both directions around central Tokyo, passing through stations in popular shopping and entertainment areas such as Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku.
Chuo Line trains are orange and run east to Tokyo and west to Hachioji and Mt. Takao. At Tachikawa, the Chuo links up with the Ome Line, which goes to Yokota Air Base’s nearby Fussa Station, before continuing on to Mitake and Ome. (Alternately, JR East competitor Seibu has a line of the same name running from Seibu Shinjuku Station that stops at Seibu Tachikawa Station, a brief hike or taxi ride to Yokota’s East Gate, before ending at Haijima Station.)
The yellow Sobu Line runs local service parallel to the Chuo Line from Mitaka to Ochanomizu, in central Tokyo, before it peels off to go to Akihabara, the electronics Mecca, and into nearby Chiba Prefecture, home to Tokyo Disney Resort.
The Keihin Tohoku Line is blue and operates from Omiya in Saitama Prefecture to areas south of Tokyo, where it connects with the Keikyu, Negishi, and Yokohama lines. This ultimately links with the Yokosuka Line, which goes to Yokosuka Naval Base as well as the Ikego and Negishi housing areas.
The Keihin Tohoku Line stops at Tokyo Station, a major hub for these and other lines, including shinkansen bullet trains with connections to Misawa, Sasebo and Iwakuni stations.
Camp Zama’s nearest station is Sobudaimae, which is serviced by Odakyu Railway, a large privately owned transit system. The line runs directly to Shinjuku, one of the major stations in Tokyo, or riders can get off at the shopping town of Machida, where they can change to the Yokohama Line for travel elsewhere.
The Sotetsu Line stops at Sagamino and Sagami Otsuka stations, nearest to Naval Air Facility Atsugi; taking about 30 minutes from Yokohama.
The Tokyo Metro subway, which mainly serves central Tokyo inside the Yamanote loop, is one of the most efficient in the world. Similar to JR East, its train map routes are color-coded, and its stations have numerical designations in addition to names, making them easy to navigate.
Station names are rendered in English as well as Japanese, and most other important signs are also in English or internationally understood symbols.
Navigating Kyushu & northern Honshu
Misawa Station is about three miles from Misawa Air Base. The Aoimori Railway Line stops at Hachinohe Station (15 minutes south of Misawa), where you can connect with the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train for 570 yen ($5). Aomori (City) Station is about an hour north of Misawa by train (1,800 yen). Misawa Airport is a 15-minute bus ride from Misawa Station (320 yen).
Kichi Taxi in building 14 on Misawa Air Base, provides taxi service with the ability to pick up and deliver passengers both on and off the installation. Call: 0176-53-6481
JR Iwakuni Station is less than two miles from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. Buses leave the train station every 5-15 minutes in the direction of Kintaikyo Bridge, Iwakuni Castle and other local attractions; it takes about 20 minutes and costs about 250-300 yen ($2-$2.50). The JR Sanyo Line travels between Iwakuni Station and Hiroshima (City) Station in 50 minutes (760 yen). To Hiroshima Airport, it takes just under two hours and cost roughly 2,000 yen.
In addition to on-base shuttle buses, MCAS Iwakuni has taxi stands at Strike Zone Bowling Center, across from Crossroads Mall and several other locations. You can also call Iwakuni Eki Konai Taxi at 082-721-1111 or Daiichi Kotsu Taxi at 082-731-5151 for taxis with on- and off-base access. A blue sticker on the left side of the windshield indicates a taxi is authorized to drive on base. The fare is about 1,200 from MCAS Iwakuni to Iwakuni Station.
JR Sasebo Station is just over two and a half miles from Sasebo Naval Base. Rapid Liner trains get to Nagasaki in just over 90 minutes for about 1,600 yen ($14.50). The Midori Limited Express goes to Hakata Station in Fukuoka City in about one hour and 45 minutes (3,870 yen). From there, a one-mile subway ride takes you to Fukuoka Airport (260 yen).
There is also a shuttle bus between the base and Fukuoka Airport for authorized personnel with reservations, military ID and orders. Call: DSN 315-252-3627 or 001-81-956-50-3627. Public buses from Sasebo Station to Nagasaki Airport take about an hour and 45 minutes (1,400 yen).
Most taxis have base access. A green sticker on the left side of the windshield indicates a taxi is authorized to drive on base. It costs about 600 yen from base to Minato Town, and 1,000 yen to Sasebo Station. Call King Taxi at: 09-568-84136 or Kokusai Taxi at 09-563-15931.